What do you do when you’re feeling lonely? In Moscow, a growing number of people are renting friends on local websites such as Avito, which are usually reserved for selling second-hand clothing and furniture, or advertising apartment rentals. Now, for a small sum, you can find a companion for all those times you simply need someone to talk to, a plus-one for a party, or even just a cinema trip with company.
Photographer Anastasia Dubrovina has been taking portraits of individuals who advertise themselves as online friends-for-hire since the start of the summer. She stumbled upon this phenomena at the height of the pandemic after reading about similar rental services in Japan. She wanted to find out what made young Muscovites offer themselves as friends-by-the-hour, what exactly they do, and what made someone a suitable “friend”.
“A few years ago, I came across an article about a Japanese agency called Friends for the Hour, where you can hire an actor to pretend to be your relative or friend. I wondered if something like this existed in Russia. As it turns out, you can find anything you could imagine on Avito,” she recalls.
Dubrovina says that many Muscovites were feeling lonely long before lockdown. The photographer had experienced the same isolation after relocating to the Russian capital from her hometown of Minsk, Belarus, four years ago. “After moving to Moscow, I found myself without friends. At one point, I even had to celebrate my 30th birthday alone. It’s not easy to make friends in adulthood, when you no longer have school or university to fall back on. It’s not a given that you’ll find friends through work.”
Like Dubrovina, many of her subjects have experienced loneliness in the past. “They offer this service from a strong desire to help others. They told me people have always trusted them with their problems, which shows they know how to listen.” The majority of the rent-a-friends photographed by Dubrovina have been working in the industry for between six and 18 months — the entirety of the pandemic. They receive requests for their services almost everyday: more often on weekends, when people just want someone to hang out with. “I met some professionals who do not drink with clients, while others will happily join you for a walk and a drink, and pretend to be your boyfriend or husband in front of friends or parents,” Dubrovina reveals.
The photographer found that people increasingly rent friends to confide in about problems or subjects they feel their family or friends will judge them for: arguments or misunderstandings, financial problems, their sexual orientation, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, or abusive relationships. “People have told me they feel more comfortable approaching strangers because their friends are too busy, or because their peers tend to lecture and reproach. Perhaps this is something ingrained in our culture: people do not know how to truly support their friends or family members without hurting their feelings, and instead tend to moralise and devalue,” the photographer explains. Many of those same clients can’t afford therapy, or simply do not believe a psychologist will help, she says. Meanwhile, the pandemic has heightened isolation, loneliness, and the demand for a kind ear: “There has been a rise in requests since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Dubrovina shot her portraits of Moscow’s rent-a-friend in locations where each subject would usually meet their clients. “It was usually a street, a cafe or an apartment. Of course, during [the pandemic], meet-ups have been replaced with calls. But, the mode of communication really isn’t important — crucially, people are just looking for a conversation.” The photographer likens her subjects to strangers you might meet on a train: “a non-judgemental listener who you can talk to and who you’ll never probably see again”.
The project has also been key for Dubrovina as a professional who also interacts with strangers for a living. She says that she too learned a lot about human communication, which she too will take into her photography: “Previously, when I’d first meet someone I was photographing, I would start the conversation by telling them about myself, to break the ice and help my subjects relax. Now, I just listen without ever interrupting, [which is] something that I learned from the Avito friends. I let my subjects speak and do not try to fill the silence. I’ve noticed that people will tell me more this way, and be more sincere and calm.” In the end, she says, “often all you really need is to listen and to be listened to.”